In the wake of Friday’s Aurora, CO massacre, a heated debate sprung up online about the role of guns in American culture that we’ve seen play out in news editorials but also at the more individual level in comment threads and Facebook discussions.
Whenever a major news event or tragedy focuses our attention one issue like this, reactionary responses are to be expected. Questioning how it happened and how it might have been prevented, or at least discouraged, is almost unavoidable. I believe it’s this kind of reactionary response that ultimately took a bad turn and led to rampant Islamophobia after 9/11.
So of the reactions to this disaster, I was somewhat surprised to see the most passionate voices springing not from those calling for new efforts to curb the prevalence of guns in America, but by those calling for even more guns.
For gun supporters, the Aurora incident has done anything but turn them off to guns. In fact it seems to have seriously galvanized their conviction that their guns are more necessary than ever.
A big part of the argument, from what I can gather, goes like this: a society is only safe when nobody has guns or everybody has them. When only some of us have them, it leaves those of us without open to senseless attacks by those packing, and the only thing that can keep us safe is carrying a gun for our own defense. Since eliminating them entirely is impossible, we’re better off arming everyone.
The other part is that the Second Amendment also originally intended to help safeguard against the government turning evil. If it stops representing the people and we need to overthrow it by force, we should be able to.
Both points have big flaws:
1. We’re safter with guns
“Guns don’t kill people, people do” has been repeated ad nauseum since Aurora, with the notion the tragedy wasn’t a gun issue but a mental health issue. Deranged individuals like Holmes, gun supporters say, will be able to get guns on the black market and therefore we shouldn’t make any effort to limit their availability.
Yes, criminals and psychopaths will always be able get weapons, and improvise make-shift ones if they can’t find real ones. But that doesn’t mean we should make no efforts whatsoever to keep them out of their hands. In many places in the US anyone can currently walk into a gun show and buy an assault rifle that will spray hundreds of bullets at once without even showing an ID. If we subjected the process of buying killing machines to the same rigors we did of, say, getting a driver’s license, or better yet, forbade just the most threatening guns, like the AR-15 for which James Holmes bought 6,000 bullets, from being manufactured and sold in the U.S. at all, would fewer of them end up in the hands of criminals?
If you think forbidding the manufacture and sale of these weapons would have statistically zero impact on criminals’ access to them, you’re kidding yourself. Americans buy 4.5 million of the 8 million guns sold each year and currently holds 270 firearms—fully 9 guns for every 10 Americans. 100,000 people are shot to death every year including 3,000 kids. Most of those can’t be attributed to criminal masterminds who would just as easily find weapons on the black market as Walmart.
And illustrating this isn’t just about mental health, we have 20 times the number of gun deaths than the next 22 richest nations combined. I don’t know how many criminal psychopaths we have, but I’m willing to bet not that many.
But I sense the real issue here isn’t statistical, it’s emotional: Guns equal empowerment, defending oneself and one’s loved ones. To some extent, this might be valid. But upholding the right to protect yourself doesn’t mean we should completely ditch all efforts to make sure people are buying guns for the right reason and are of sound mind. And the right to defend yourself shouldn’t come with the right to a bullet-spraying machine like Holmes’ AR-15. Those guns are pure offense, whether for shooting up trees out back or people—no one is buying these for defense.
And this brings us to the heart of the matter: because of our desire for control, people from Rep. Louie Gohmert to our Facebook commenters imagine that if only they’d been there, trusty gun strapped to their ankle, they would have popped up above the crowd and took Holmes out with one precise shot and saved the day. Everyone wants to be a hero, and to be empowered against evil. But this is pure fantasy. Imagine the entire dark theater armed on Friday night. As Cenk Uygur points out, once the shooting began, who would have known for sure if the additional shooters were on Holmes’s side or against him? It would have been pandemonium. And it almost definitely would have resulted in more deaths, not less. Having the AR-15 not have been sold in the first place would have been far preferable to more people in the theater being armed.
The really insidious thing is that people’s emotional desire for guns, which creates a market, intersects the vested interest of lawmakers like Gohmert, who get lobbying money from gun manufacturers.
2. We need guns in case we need to overthrow the government.
Newsflash: unless you are in possession of nuclear warhead arsenal that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet combined couldn’t build, you can not make war and win against the U.S. government. This notion is from the 1700s, when the technology the government possessed was the same as the muskets the people possessed. This has changed irrevocably.
Gun lovers of America: This does not need to be an all or nothing issue. We may be able to maintain people’s rights to own a gun for defense while also making it harder to buy machine guns and increasing accountability before the trigger gets pulled. If your reason for not wanting to keep AR-15s out of people like Holmes’ hands is that you deep-down believe you’ll be the G.I. Joe to stop him next time, you won’t. It’s time we reconsider the price of this fantasy and get real about what a healthy presence of guns in our culture looks like. It sure as hell doesn’t look like Friday in Aurora.